The Taming of the Shrew
Ballet in two acts
Choreography by John Cranko
Music by Karl-Heinz Stolze, after Domenico Scarlatti
The Stuttgart Ballet
State Theatre Stuttgart Orchestra/Wolfgang Heinz
Video director: Michael Beyer
rec. 2022, Opera House of the State Theatre Stuttgart
Unitel Editions 808108 DVD [2 discs: 222]
With this new release, following on from those of Onegin and Romeo and Juliet, Stuttgart Ballet continues its advocacy of the ballets of choreographer John Cranko. He had been the company’s director from 1961 until his death in 1973, during which time he created a number of important new works that are still promoted in Stuttgart today.
While Romeo and Juliet (1962) can easily bring a tear to the eye and Onegin (1965) packs a really powerful emotional punch to the gut, the third and last of Cranko’s great narrative ballets, The taming of the shrew (1969), shows a rather different side to his work. As Reid Anderson, himself a subsequent director of Stuttgart Ballet, says in the Q&A session that’s included as an extra feature on this release, The taming of the shrew is not a classical ballet. Instead, he considers it, in some respects, akin at various points to a pantomime, an opera, an operetta, a piece of abstract dance and, especially in its finale, a musical. “It is”, he says, “a unique piece in our ballet world”.
On first impression, it is easy to think that The taming of the shrew merely offers its audience a couple of hours of pretty consistent amusement. The DVD’s rear-cover blurb markets it, indeed, as “one of the greatest ballet comedies of the 20th century… [t]he perfect ballet for the whole family”. That description is, however, both rather misleading and highly questionable. In the first place, as Vivien Arnold, another participant in that Q&A session, rightly observes, “ballet comedies of the 20th century” is hardly an extensive field in which to be one of the greatest. Secondly, describing The taming of the shrew, whether Shakespeare’s play or Cranko’s ballet, as “perfect… for the whole family” rather downplays the serious moral issues that it raises, albeit obliquely, and that we are all too well aware of in today’s Me Too era.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story, I will briefly outline the version of it that’s presented in the ballet. The setting is the 16th century. Beautiful Bianca has three suitors – Lucentio, Gremio and Hortensio – but her father will not permit her to marry one of them until her opinionated and argumentative elder sister Katherina has found a husband. The three hopeful young men pay off the debts of the roguish yet charming Petruchio and he, in exchange, agrees to marry Katherina. Having done so he “tames” her wilfulness by making married life miserable – there’s no food on the table and no heating in the house – but she eventually comes to realise that she loves both him and his masterful manner. Meanwhile, Lucentio tricks his romantic rivals into marrying a couple of the town whores, leaving him the successful suitor for Bianca’s hand. The ballet’s ironic finale shows Katherina in docile but contented vassalage to her husband Petruchio, while, on the other hand, Gremio, Hortensio and even Lucentio find themselves hitched to incipient “shrews” with the implied promise of future trouble ahead.
Katherina’s behaviour is characterised for much of the time by stamping around the stage in violent outbursts and there’s also plenty of broad slapstick comedy on display. It’s therefore quite appropriate that, as Reid Anderson stresses, Cranko keeps his production fast paced and full of action. Despite the fact that his characters are actually more complex than they may superficially appear and often act in morally questionable ways (Vivien Arnold stresses just how mean much of their behaviour to each other actually is), he denies his audience the time to ponder the plot’s deeper implications. As a result, I suspect that most viewers who watch Stuttgart Ballet’s The taming of the shrew will appreciate it, as I admit I initially did, as little more than a couple of hours’ worth of broadly comic “perfect for the whole family” entertainment.
If you have seen either of John Cranko’s other big narrative ballets, you will probably be surprised by the music to The taming of the shrew. Romeo and Juliet had, as you would have expected, used Prokofiev’s familiar score. For Onegin, Stuttgart’s conductor Karl-Heinz Stolze had taken various Tchaikovsky pieces, woven them together and, where necessary, orchestrated them, producing an end result that might have actually been composed by Pyotr Il’yich himself. Herr Stolze’s approach to The taming of the shrew was, however, very different. Writing for a much smaller orchestra, he composed what was essentially a new score “after Domenico Scarlatti”, incorporating recognisable phrases from that composer’s sonatas into the mix while, we are somewhat puzzlingly informed, “putting the story on top of it”. The end result is musically complex, coming close to jazz at one or two points, and said to pose considerable practical difficulties for both conductors and players. The conductor Wolfgang Heinz explains all this at some length in the Q&A, but I’m afraid that the subtitled English version left me, even if somewhat better informed, little the wiser.
Moving on to matters of design, this is a production with very simple sets. As already noted, Cranko wanted The taming of the shrew to move at a brisk paste and the intervals between scenes to be kept as brief as possible. Consequently, most of the sets were made as two-dimensional constructions, able to be erected and taken down very quickly. To some extent, that spare impression is mitigated by Elizabeth Dalton’s range of eye-catching costumes. Many of those are surprisingly elaborate. Katherina and Petruchio, on the other hand, are dressed more simply – neatly symbolic of the fact that their characters are a little truer to life and less exaggerated than the others on stage, as well as a very practical consideration given that they move and dance so energetically during the performance.
Mention of dancing reminds me that we still have to consider the performances. With the rest of the cast little more than stock caricatures – “the fop”, “the old man”, “the young student” and so on – the success of any performance of The taming of the shrew depends very much on the quality of its leads. Fortunately, Elisa Badenes and Jason Reilly exhibit a real personal chemistry between them and really rise to the occasion.
Ms Badenes undertakes a difficult role. For much of it, the character of Katherina doesn’t develop at all. She is simply a difficult, obstreperous woman who only, it seems, exists to rant, to stamp around the stage in a furious rage, to glower menacingly, to threaten others – of both sexes – with her fists or even to strike them and, both metaphorically and literally, to dig in her heels stubbornly at every opportunity. Cranko, revelling, perhaps, in the role’s comic possibilities, actually leaves it rather late before we see the first signs of Katherina’s thawing, which means that it’s a tricky task to convince an audience of that transformation – even if it’s merely one from one form of comedy (slapstick nastiness) to another (exaggeratedly doe-eyed and voluntary subjugation). Thankfully, Ms Badenes proves very adept at both aspects of the role, with a fine rage of facial expressions that will make you grin even as she grimaces. She also embraces the physicality of the role with gusto, to the extent that she must have been exhausted by the end of a performance. Her accomplished technique means that her dancing is always perfectly judged and executed.
Mr Reilly, meanwhile, simply is Petruchio, a commanding presence whenever he’s on stage, reminding me very much of Howard Keel in that other adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Kiss me Kate [before anyone picks me up on it, the film version dropped the comma that you’ll find preceding “Kate” in the title of the Broadway show]. He swaggers confidently as if he owns the whole town, even when, having been robbed by the two whores, he can’t afford to pay his bar bill at the tavern. Down on his uppers, he yet knows that he is more of a man – and, underneath the braggadocio, a decent human being – than the more respectable citizens who surround him: he is, altogether, a powerful advertisement for meritocracy in a hierarchical society. Mr Reilly embodies that self-assurance in his performance. His is not an easy role – Petruchio has two big solos and three pas de deux to get through in the course of a couple of hours – but he dances and delivers the onstage physicality demanded by the role with huge aplomb.
The rest of the company, whether in featured roles or in the corps de ballet, invariably offer very effective support. Apart from its leading roles, this isn’t a ballet that attempts anything in the way of sophisticated characterisation or character development, but everyone on stage contributes to the jolly mood that Cranko creates. They are, too, well supported by the State Theatre Stuttgart Orchestra.
I experienced no particular problems with the DVD itself. Both sound and picture quality are very good. Let’s, however, keep in mind that ballet is essentially a visual experience. While the core element of a concert or even an opera is the sound – allowing both to have meaningful existences even when heard only on CD – a ballet (as opposed to a ballet score) has to be seen to be appreciated. Casual buyers looking for a Nutcracker or Swan lake will no doubt be happy with DVD standard discs. More discerning balletomanes, on the other hand, interested in a comparative rarity like The taming of the shrew and, I’d wager, more likely to read reviews before purchasing, will almost certainly prefer a higher-grade format when putting their collection together. It’s disappointing, therefore, that MusicWeb wasn’t offered an advance copy of the Blu-ray release, for it would no doubt have showcased the best possible version of this recording.
Regardless, however, of format, the supporting material accompanying this performance is excellent. The booklet accompanying the disc is perfectly fine, though the information that it provides is rather basic. In the event, though, that proves to be more than enough as we are also presented with a second DVD that very informatively gives us a full 99 minutes’ discussion, moderated by Vivien Arnold, between the members of an expert panel. Stuttgart Ballet’s current artistic director Tamas Detrich is there to recall his own time dancing as Petruchio and tell us something of the production as it’s presented today; a historical perspective comes from a former artistic director, Reid Anderson, another Petruchio from the past, who recalls joining the company as a dancer just a couple of weeks before The taming of the shrew’s 1969 premiere and subsequently working with John Cranko himself; meanwhile, conductor Wolfgang Heinz describes how the score was originally conceived and created and explains, with a practical demonstration on a piano, why it is so effective. Similar lengthy and detailed discussions also appeared on both previous releases in this Stuttgart/Cranko mini-series and have proved to be a real boon to anyone wishing to explore those works in greater depth. Other companies tend to offer ten minutes’ long featurettes at best or, at worst, nothing at all in the way of supporting visual material. Couldn’t they follow Unitel’s excellent example, particularly when presenting rare and little known repertoire?
I could, in fact, write a whole essay based on what I discovered from listening to the three expert commentators. I will, however, confine myself to a single – and rather enlightening – anecdote recalled by Reid Anderson. It appears that John Cranko originally intended to bring The taming of the shrew to a close in the same manner as he had ended Onegin – by spotlighting a single character, in this case Katherina, and then suddenly plunging the stage into darkness. When, however, the ballet’s commercially all-important New York premiere was just a couple of weeks away, the American impresario Sol Hurok demanded a change because, he claimed, US audiences wouldn’t appreciate a downbeat ending. By no means a prima donna, Cranko got to work at once and added the “feel good” Broadway-style finale that still brings the ballet to its conclusion today. Days later, four thousand New Yorkers gave it an unprecedentedly long standing ovation. The premiere had been a huge triumph and the rest, as they say, is history.
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Katherina – Elisa Badenes
Petruchio – Jason Reilly
Bianca – Veronika Verterich
Lucentio – Martí Fernández Paixà
Gremio – Alessandro Giaquinto
Hortensio – Fabio Adorisio
Two ladies of the street – Angelina Zuccarini and Daiana Ruiz
Battista – Rolando D’Alesio
Innkeeper / priest – Matteo Crockard-Villa
Pas de six – Mizuki Amemiya, Alicia Torronteras, Mackenzie Brown, Adrian Oldenburger, Clemens Fröhlich and Satchel Tanner
Townsfolk of Padua, wedding guests and carnival revellers – corps de ballet
Filmed in Ultra High Definition
Picture format: NTSC / 16:9
Sound formats: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1